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In Session: Coping with Abundance: Categories of Knowledge in Early Modern East Asia
1: Reading the Encyclopedia: Instructions for Use in Late Imperial Chinese Compilations
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Washington University in St. Louis, United States
Encyclopedic texts and reference works played a central role in managing and circulating textual information in the wake of the sixteenth-century publishing boom in China. Innovations in finding devices within such genres have often been associated with the rise of “consultation reading,” which allowed a reader to access the material contained within efficiently and without having to wade through excessive textual material. This paper will suggest that “consultation reading” was only one of multiple strategies employed by late imperial Chinese readers in their use of encyclopedic texts. I focus here on Fang Yizhi’s (1611–1671) Comprehensive Elegances (Tongya), a major encyclopedic text of the seventeenth century. The organizational structure of the text would have allowed for consultation of specific entries, but instructions for use in the paratextual material and embedded within the entries themselves indicate that the text may also have been designed to be read sequentially, almost as one would read a novel or treatise. This sequential mode of reading is evident in the instructions for use in numerous other contemporary “reference works,” such as dictionaries. By highlighting the multiple methods of reading proposed in late imperial encyclopedic compilations, I highlight the literary appeal of encyclopedic information for contemporary readers and reconsider the role of such texts in the period’s literary and intellectual life.